One of the most disputed questions in modem music is that of opera. Although we have many controversies as to what purely instrumental or vocal music may do, the operatic art, if we may call it so, always remains the same. In creating the music drama, Wagner put forth a composite art, something which many declare impossible, and as many others advocate as being the most complete art form yet conceived. We are still in the midst of the discussion, and a final verdict is therefore as yet impossible. On one hand we have Wagner, and against him we have the absolutists such as Brahms, the orthodox thinkers represented by Anton Rubinstein and many others, the new Russian school represented by Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and the successors of the French school of Meyerbeer, namely, Saint-Saens, Massenet, etc.
In order to get a clear idea of the present state of the matter we must review the question from the beginning of the eighteenth century. For many reasons this is not an easy task, first of all because very little of the music of the operas of this period actually exists. We know the names of Hasse, Pergolesi, Matheson, Graun, Alessandro Scarlatti (who was a much greater man than his son the harpsichord player and composer, Domenico), to name only a few. To be sure, a number of the French operas of the period are preserved, owing to the custom in France of engraving music. In Germany and ltaly, however, such operas were never printed, and one may safely say that it was almost the rule for only one manuscript copy to be available. Naturally this copy belonged to the composer, who generally led the opera himself, improvising much of it on the harpsichord, as we shall see later. As an instance of the danger which operas, under such conditions, ran of being destroyed and thus lost to the world, we may cite the total destruction of over sixty of Hasse s operas in his extreme old age.
The second point which makes it difficult for us to get an absolutely dear insight into the conditions of opera at the beginning of the eighteenth century lies in the fact that contemporary historians never brought their histories up to their own times. Thus Marpurg, in his history, divides music into four periods; first, that of Adam and Eve to the flood; second, from the flood to the Argonauts; third, to the beginning of the Olympiads; fourth, from thence to Pythagoras. The same may be said of the celebrated histories of Gerbert and Padre Martini.
On the other hand, we are certain that much of the modern speculation was anticipated by these men. For instance, Matheson calls pantomime ” dumb music,” freed from melodic and harmonic forms. The idea was advanced that music owes its rhythmic regularity and form to dancing, and architecture was called frozen music, a metaphor which, in later days, was considered such an original conception of Goethe and Schlegel. This same inability of historians to bring their accounts up to the contemporary times may be noticed in the later works of Forkel (d. 1818) and Ambros (d. 1876).
Yet a third reason remains which tends to confuse the student as to what really constituted opera. This is owing to the fact that there existed the very important element of improvisation, of which I shall speak later.
In order to see what Gluck, Weber, and Wagner had to break away from, let us look at the condition of opera at the beginning of the eighteenth century. We remember that opera, having become emancipated from the Church long before any other music, developed apace, while instrumental (secular) music was still in its infancy. ln Germany, even the drama was neglected for its kindred form of opera; therefore, in studying its development, we may well understand why the dramatic stage considered the opera its deadly enemy.
The life of the German dramatist and actor of the first half of the eighteenth century was one of the direst hard-ship and poverty. Eckhof, one of the greatest actors of his time, made his entry into Brunswick in a kind of miserable hay cart, in which, accompanied by his sick wife and several dogs, he had travelled over the rough roads. To keep warm they had filled part of the wagon with straw. The German actor and dramatist of that time often died in the hospital, despised by the richer classes; even the village priests and ministers refused to allow them to eat at their tables. Their scenery rarely consisted of more than three rough pieces: a landscape, a large room, and a peasant’s hut interior. Many even had only two large cloths which were hung about the stage, one green, which was to be used when the scene was in the open air, and the other yellow, which was used to represent an interior. Shakespeare’s ” Poor Players ” were certainly a stern reality in Germany. ln order to attract the public the plays had to consist for the most part of the grossest subjects imaginable, it being barely possible to smuggle some small portion of serious drama into the entertainment.
With opera, however, it was vastly different; opera troupes were met at the city gates by the royal or ducal carriages, and the singers were fêted everywhere. The prices paid them can only be compared with the salaries paid nowadays. They were often ennobled, and the different courts quarrelled for the honour of their presence. The accounts of the cost of the scenery used are incredible, amounting to many thousands of dollars for a single performance.
One of the earliest German kapellmeisters and opera composers was Johann Adolf Hasse, who was born in Dresden about 1700. To show the foundation upon which Gluck built, we will look at opera as it existed in Hasse’s time. In I727 Hasse married at Venice, Faustina Bordoni, the foremost singer of the time. He wrote over one hundred operas for her, and had a salary of thirty-six thousand marks, or nine thousand dollars, yearly. Now these operas were very different from those we know. The arias in them (and, of course, the whole opera was practically but a succession of arias) were only sketched in an extremely vague manner. Much was left to the singer, and the accompaniment was sparsely indicated by figures written above a bass. The recitative which separated one aria from another was improvised by the singer, and was accompanied on the harpsichord by the kapellmeister, who was naturally obliged to improvise his part on the spur of the moment, following the caprice of the singer. There was no creating an atmosphere for a tragic or dramatic situation by means of the accompaniment; as soon as the situation arrived, an aria was sung explaining it. Now, as the singer was given much latitude in regard to the melody, and absolute liberty in regard to the recitative, it is easy to see that, with the astounding technical perfection possessed by the singers of the time, this latitude would be used to astonish the hearers by wonderful vocal feats intermingled with more or less passionate declamation.
The composer was merely the excuse for the opera; but he needed to be a consummate musician to conduct and accompany this improvised music, of which his written score was but the nucleus. The wretched acting of opera singers in general has been rather humourously traced back to this epoch. Nowadays, in an opera, when, by way of example, a murder is to be committed, the orchestra paints the situation, and the act is accomplished without delay. In those olden days a singer would have indignantly re-fused to submit to such a usurpation of his rights; he would have raised his dagger, and then, before striking, would have sung an aria in the regular three parts, after which he would have stabbed his man. The necessity for doing something during this interim is said to be responsible for those idiotic gestures which used to be such a seemingly necessary part of the equipment of the opera singer.
In the ordinary opera of the time there was the custom of usually having about from twenty to thirty such arias (Hasse’s one hundred operas contain about three thousand arias). Now these arias, although they were intended to paint a situation, rapidly became simply a means to display the singer’s skill. The second part was a melody with plenty of vocal effects, and the third part a bravura piece, pure and simple. So there only remained the recitative in which true dramatic art could find place. As this, however, was invariably improvised by the singer, one can see that the composer of music had his cross as well as his brother the dramatist. The music having no vital connection with the text, it is easy to see how one opera could be set to several texts or vice-versa, as was often done.
Another factor also contributed to retard the artistic development of opera. All these arias had to be constructed and sung according to certain customs. Thus, the fiery, minor aria was always sung by the villain, the so-called colorature arias by the tall, majestic heroine, etc.
All this seems childish to us, but it was certainly a powerful factor in making fame for a composer. For, as has been said, while a modem composer writes two or three different operas, Hasse wrote one hundred versions of one. This also had its effect on instrumental music, and, in a way, is also the direct cause of that monstrosity known as ” variations ” (Handel wrote sixty-six on one theme.) In our days we often hear the bitter complaint that opera singers are no longer what they used to be, and that the great art of singing has been lost. lf we look back to the period under consideration, we cannot but admit that there is much truth in the contention. ln the first place, an opera singer of those days was necessarily an actor of great resource, a thorough musician, a composer, and a marvellous technician. ln addition to this, operas were always written for individuals. Thus, all of Hasse’s were designed for Faustina’s voice; and by examining the music, we can tell exactly what the good and bad points of her voice were, such was the care with which it was written.
Before we leave the subject of Hasse and his operas, I wish to refer briefly to a statement found in all histories and books on music. We find it stated that all this music was sung and played either loud or soft; with no gradual transitions from one to the other. The existence of that gradual swelling or diminishing of the tone in music which we call crescendo and diminuendo, is in-variably denied, and its first use is attributed to Jommelli, director of the opera at Mannheim, in .1760. Thus we are asked to believe that Faustina sang either piano or forte, and still was an intensely dramatic singer.
This seems to me to require no comment; especially as, already in 1676, Matthew Locke, an English writer, uses the – sign for the gradual transition from soft to loud. For obvious reasons there could be no such transition in harpsichord music, and this is why, when the same instrument was provided with hammers instead of quills, the name was changed to pianoforte, to indicate its power to modify the tone from soft to loud.
Naturally Handel, who was a man of despotic tendencies, could not long submit to the caprices of opera singers. After innumerable conflicts with them, we find him turning back to one of the older forms of opera, the oratorio.
Bach never troubled himself about an art from which he was so widely separated both by training and inclination. Thus the reformation of opera (I mean the old opera of which I have been speaking) devolved upon Gluck. His early operas were entirely on the lines of those of Hasse and Porpora. He wrote operas for archduchesses (” ll Parnasso ” was played by four archduchesses and accompanied on harpsichord by the Archduke Leopold), and was music master to Marie Antoinette at Vienna. lt was owing to these powerful influences that his art principles had an opportunity to be so widely exploited. For these principles were not new; they formed the basis of Pen’s first attempt at opera in i600, and had been recalled in vain by Marcello in 1720. They were so simple that it seems almost childish to quote them. They demanded merely that the music should always assist, but never interfere with either the declamation or dramatic action of the story. Thus by Gluck’s powerful influence with what may be termed the fashion of his day, he did much to relegate to a place of minor importance the singer, who until then had held undisputed sway. This being the case, the great art of singing, which had allowed the artist the full control and responsibility of opera, thus centering all upon the one individuality, degenerated into the more subordinate role of following the composer’s directions.
It now became the duty of the composer to foresee every contingency of his work, and it lay with him to give directions for every detail of it. As a result, the singers, having no longer absolute control but still anxious to display their technical acquirements, gradually changed into that now almost obsolete abomination, the ” ltalian opera singer,” an artist, who, shirking all responsibility for the music and dramatic action, neglected the composer so far as possible, and introduced vocal pyrotechnics wherever he or she dared and their daring was great.
In the meantime, as Gluck was bringing in his reforms, songs were gradually introduced into the Schauspiel or drama, the ill-fated brother of opera in Germany; and just as the grand opera reached its highest point with Gluck, so this species of melodrama grew apace, until we see its culmination in Weber’s ” Freischütz.”
The good results of Gluck’s innovations and also, to a certain degree, its discrepancies, may be plainly seen in Mozart’s operas; for only too often in his operas Mozart was obliged to introduce fioriture of the poorest possible description in situations where they were utterly out of place. This, however, may not be entirely laid at the door of the exacting singer, for we find these same fioriture throughout his harpsichord music.
We may almost say that the union of drama and music was first definitely given status by Mozart; for a number of his operas, such as the ” Schauspieldirektor,” etc., were merely a form of the German Sings piel, which, as I have said, culminated in ” Freischütz.”
Thus, at the beginning of our century we find two art forms: First, grand opera of a strange nationality, and second, the small but rapidly developing form of comedy or drama with music.
ln order to show how Wagner evolved his art theories from this material, we must consider to some degree the general conditions of this period.
As late as 1853, Riehl wrote that Mendelssohn was the only composer who had the German public, whereas others had only a small section of it. For example, Schumann, whose music he did not like, was accepted as a new Messiah in the Elbe River district; ” but who,” he asks, ” knows anything about him in the south or west of Germany? ” And as for Richard Wagner, who, he says, is a man of extravagant ideas and a kind of phenomenon of no con-sequence artistically, he asks, ” who really knows any-thing about him outside of the little party of fanatics who profess to like his music (so-called)?” lts only chance of becoming known, he says, is in the public’s curiosity to hear works which are rarely given. This curiosity, he continues, will be a much more potent factor in his chance of becoming known than all his newspaper articles and the propaganda of his friend, Franz Liszt.
For the German opera there were half a dozen Boersenpldtze Berlin for the northwest, Hamburg for the northeast, Frankfort for the southwest, Munich for the southeast. As Riehl says, a success in Frankfort meant a success in all the Frankfort clay deposit and sandstone systems, but in the chalk formation of Munich it stood no chance. Thus Germany had no musical centre. But after Meyerbeer found such a centre in Paris, all other Germans, including Wagner, looked to Paris for fame.
At the end of the eighteenth century, Vienna was the art centre; nevertheless Gluck had to go to Paris for recognition.
Mendelssohn only succeeded by his Salonfahigkeit. Always respectable in his forms, no one else could have made music popular among the cultured classes as could Mendelssohn. This also had its danger; for if Mendelssohn had written an opera (the lack of which was so bewailed by the Philistines), it would have taken root all over Germany, and put Wagner back many years. At the death of Mendelssohn, the Philistines heralded the coming of a new German national school, founded on his principles (formalism), one that would clarify the artistic atmosphere of the turgid and anarchistic excesses of Wagner and Berlioz and their followers. These critics found already that Beethoven’s melodies were too long and his instrumentation too involved. They declared that the further music departed from its natural simplicity the more involved its utterance became, the less clear, and consequently the poorer it was. Music was compared to architecture, and thus the more Greek it was, the better; forgetting that architecture was tied to utilitarian-ism and poetry to word-symbols, and that painting is primarily an art of externals.
Riehl says that art is always in danger of ruin when its simple foundation forms are too much elaborated, over-looking the fact that music is not an art, but psychological utterance.
lt needed all Wagner’s gigantic personality to rise above this wave of formalism that looked to the past for its salvation, a past which was one of childish experimenting rather than of esthetic accomplishment. The tendency was to return to the dark cave where tangible walls were to be touched by the hands, rather than to emerge into a sunlight that seemed blinding.